The below guidance is factual; however, the examples and stylized commentary belong to the writer and do not express the sentiments of the Department of Defense. This guidance is meant for Title 10 service members only as certain details differ for elements under other areas of the U.S. Code.
Have you ever been unsure about expressing your political opinion because you are in the military? Do you question what you are allowed to do or say? We have all heard people say “you sign your rights away when you put on the uniform.” That is a MYTH and a damn dangerous one at that. As a service member, you maintain most of the rights afforded to all Americans under the First Amendment.
In the military, we only ever see two schools of thought on political activism: Firstly, the E4 wearing his uniform at a political rally, and secondly the warrior-monk general officers or imitation lieutenants who preach political abstinence. In reality, there is a far greater range of acceptable activities for you to engage in as a responsible citizen-soldier.
Of course, given the position of trust bestowed upon you by the American people, there are caveats. (And no I can’t string three sentences together without using the word “caveat,” I’m in the Army, after all.) These caveats exist so we can maintain the public’s trust. And the public trusts that we will follow the orders of elected officials and not take up our arms in support of a wannabe dictator with a God-complex, as we’ve seen in military coups around the world.
The United States Military does not discourage political awareness and activism for service members as long as you adhere to certain guidelines. Your restrictions are vaguely summed up in DoD Directive 1344.10. Between this directive and several court cases over the years this issue is about as clear-as-mud. But since no one is going to read the reference or the judicial findings, keep reading here for a less yawn-inducing break down that even a Marine might understand.
The major prohibition is against any type of partisan activity. A partisan activity is defined as “activity directed toward the success or failure of a [particular] political party or candidate for a partisan political office or partisan political group.” STOMP STOMP STOMP. Remember this. If your political statements and actions are not partisan, you are on the right track.
There is a big difference between engaging in partisan activities, as defined in the Directive, and taking political action about an issue you care about. It does not matter if that issue happens to be promoted by a particular political party. There is a difference, for example, between saying “Down with Trump!” after seeing a tweet about immigration, and saying “We should protect all refugees seeking asylum!” There is a difference between saying “The Democratic leadership are crooks; lock them up!” and ,”Laws apply to all citizens of the land. We should ensure our elected officials never abuse their power!” As always, context matters. If your statements are perceived as disloyal or promoting resistance to U.S. policy concerning war or other national interests, there is potential for some raised eyebrows. Tread lightly.
There are few limitations, however, on directly naming and criticizing non-elected, non-governmentally appointed, private individuals. For example, you are free to publicly proclaim, “Bill Gates is Satan’s puppet on earth!” and there is no safe space for Sean Hannity when you call him a “moron” and say “FOX news is pure garbage.” It is your right to say this, post it, write it on a sign, etc.
I want to be clear: you are allowed to be a Democrat or Republican. You can be in the Tea Party or Green Party. You can even be a member of the Vampires Witches Pagans Party — yes, that’s actually a thing. You are absolutely allowed to tell people how you identify politically, and you are allowed to promote your party but with limitations because: with great power comes great responsibility.
So if your political statements and actions are not partisan you are in the clear right? Well… kind of. There are several court cases that created a precedent for additional limitations on service members’ free speech. Now might be a good time to address the two “gotcha” phrases found in Article 134 of UCMJ: The first is “good order and discipline” and the second “actions that bring discredit upon the armed forces.” These are broad and subjective criteria but that does not mean they can be used to silence Americans in the military. There must be a “direct, palpable and obvious connection” between your political statements and the military’s mission or reputation.
Here is a detailed example of the above: Suppose that the COVID 19 vaccine, once it is released, is one of the ones funded by Bill Gates, and if that vaccine becomes mandatory for military members (which is likely). Then, if you said “Bill Gates is Satan’s puppet on earth,” then your statement may influence the Soldiers around you to refuse the vaccine. This has the potential to affect the military mission and might, therefore, be considered inappropriate.
Ok, now that we have covered that, here are some do’s and don’ts within the DoD Directive:
A military member may:
- Register, vote and express personal opinions.
- Encourage other military members to exercise voting rights.
- Join a political club, and attend political meetings and rallies as a spectator when not in uniform. Too easy.
- Attend a partisan fundraiser — but you cannot sell tickets to it.
- Make monetary contributions to a political organization — with that deployment money.
- Sign petitions for specific legislative action or place candidate’s name on the ballot.
- Write letters to the editor expressing personal views — so long as it’s not part of an organized letter-writing campaign and as long as you don’t add your rank to the letter.
- Attend a partisan rally, but you are not permitted to speak at one — there goes your chance at stardom.
- Place bumper stickers on private vehicles. Technically only one bumper sticker is allowed. That said, I’ve never heard of anyone being punished for multiple.
- Volunteer to work at a polling station — once again, not in uniform.
- Personal participation in nonpartisan political activities is allowed, so long as the following are observed:
- Not in uniform. We get it already!
- No use of Government property or resources, to include computers and internet (this one gets people hemmed up).
- No interference with duty.
- No implied Government position or involvement. — If you are at a meeting for the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, you are not allowed to say, “I’m an MP in the Army so I know that X is true.” Your military expertise should not be leveraged for your political activities.
A military member may not:
- Use contemptuous words against certain civilian governmental leaders (10 U.S.C. 888) (this applies to commissioned officers only). FYI that doesn’t give an NCO a hall pass to be an ass hat… contemptuous means “jerk” by the way; I had to look it up.
- Be a candidate for, hold, or exercise functions of a civil office. You don’t have time for that anyway. Do some PT.
- Participate in partisan political campaigns, speeches, articles, TV/radio discussions. This means being an employee or a volunteer for a campaign.
- Serve in official capacity or sponsor a partisan political club. So you can be a member but not the President of the “Young Socialist Alliance”, for example.
- Conduct political opinion surveys. This references official polls run by candidates to assess their support amongst their potential constituents; it does not reference Instagram polls.
- Use official authority to influence or interfere with an election or coerce subordinates to vote in a particular way. This goes back to not being a hat for an ass.
- March or ride in partisan parades. This is different from attending political rallies or marching in a protest. If you are protesting abortion at the annual March for Life in DC, and there happen to be a lot of Trump supporters there, that doesn’t make it inherently a partisan march. Therefore, you are permitted to attend, assuming your Commander doesn’t have other unrelated reasons why you can’t. Maybe the Vampire Party rally is happening at an off-limits establishment for example. If so, you can’t attend.
- Participate in an organized effort to transport voters to polls. This includes getting a TMP to bring soldiers from the barracks to the polls. Sorry to all the ambitious Voting Assistance Officers out there.
- Promote political dinners or fundraising events. This does not mean you can’t make donations to them; it just means you can’t pass out promotional material about the fundraising event or forward email invitations to a political dinner.
- Attend partisan events as an official representative of Armed Forces. This one is obvious. You aren’t “CPT” or “Petty Officer Second Class” (why are Navy ranks so long-winded?) when you attend a Biden 2020 or Trump 2020 election rally. No one needs to know what you do for a living while you are there. Mind ya business.
- Participate in extremist organizations and activities. Sometimes it might not be easy to tell if your group is considered extremist, but if it is advocating racial, gender or ethnic hatred or intolerance, bug out. Also, go find some new friends.
And as always, if you are identified as a U.S. service member at an event or online, make sure you have a disclaimer in your hip-pocket. Your views are your own and not the DoD’s (see my CYA disclaimer at top of this article). Speaking of disclaimers, I am not a lawyer and — although it should be obvious — this article is not legal advice. If you need some of that, go talk to your JAG.
Do all of these rules make it feel like we are splitting hairs? Yep, they kinda do. But actually the DoD Directive, as with all legal documents, is highly technical and specific for a reason. It gives you the freedom to maneuver while providing important left and right limits. The more you know about the rules, the freer you become. Now that you know your lane, speak up, and get involved. Our battle buddies died for our right to do so. Honor them.
Captain Emily Rainey is an active duty Special Operations Officer stationed at Fort Bragg, NC.